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Reflections on Independence Day

By Samuel Doniger   |   Sunday, 03 Jul 2011 08:46 PM

On July 4, 1776, members of the Second Continental Congress gathered in the modest enclosures of Independence Hall to declare the birth of what would become the greatest nation the world had ever known.

As cannons roared throughout the eastern seaboard and armies marched across endless fields, many of history’s most influential thinkers gathered in those hallowed halls in Philadelphia on that warm and blustery summer afternoon to declare that the United States of America was to become a nation, an independent entity that would forge its own future — unfettered and detached from the control of the mighty British Empire.

The idea of independence was a radical one. Indeed, independence was not even a goal when the Revolutionary War began in Boston in 1775. The belief was that the challenges that came with separating from the United Kingdom far outweighed the benefits of becoming an independent nation.

It obviously would be impossible to defeat the British, then considered the most powerful nation in the world. Even if Americans were victorious, then what would happen? What government would they have? Who would be in a position of power? How can a nation just emerge, for Britain, France, Spain, and all of the other powers of the world had been in existence since the dawn of the nation-state?

But 1776 brought enormous change. The Revolutionary War had not been the total rout that many had expected, and American troops under the command of Gen. George Washington had put up an admirable fight. The world watched as the oppressed took on the oppressor and the underdog of a lifetime fought for its right to survive on earth.

It is a little-known fact of history that the man who actually proposed independence had no relation to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He never became a part of American government, nor did he have any relation to America’s Founding Fathers. Thomas Paine, who has been given the title “The Father of the American Revolution,” called for independence and separation from Britain in his pamphlet “Common Sense.”

The effect that Paine had on the course of the Revolution — and moreover, his impact on the course of human history — is immeasurable. The call for a United States of America, a name that Paine himself gave to the 13 colonies, had now begun.

When the Continental Congress convened on June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion calling for the colonies’ official separation from Great Britain and unification into a single entity known as the United States of America. Amidst a growing and increasingly violent war, against the most unbeatable of enemies, and against every odd in the world, the United States, in theory, was born.

Lee’s proposal for independence was passed on July 2, 1776, but we celebrate our nation’s independence on July 4 — the day that the Continental Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence.

War did not end. The battlefields of Saratoga, Yorktown, Trenton, and Princeton still had not seen the horrors to come. Even though America had declared independence, it still had to achieve it.

July 4, 1776, did not mark the end of British rule, but rather, the beginning of the idea of a nation separate from Britain. That day marks not our nation’s independence, but rather its fruition, the solidification of freedom into a nation-state that would protect and uphold liberties.

The war itself finally came to an end in 1783, on a peninsula in Virginia. Washington led American troops in alliance with the French navy trapped British troops at the southern tip of Yorktown. British drummers played the tune “The World Turn’d Upside Down,” as English Gen. George Cornwallis surrendered his sword to Washington.

The war was over. A scattered militia had taken on and defeated an army and navy that soon would go on to conquer more than a quarter of the world. David had defeated Goliath and secured his spot as a formidable power whose determination to uphold liberty and freedom combined with the desire to propel humanity forward would prove unstoppable.

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